Military history is, by its nature, replete with anniversaries. We have just seen the Fourth of July pass, which is obviously most famous for the Surrender of Vicksburg in 1863 during the American Civil War.
And of course, that day is also remembered for another epic moment, an event that should never be forgotten.
At around 2AM on the 4th of July 1986, a lone figure wearing a full flight suit drove out to a A-4M Skyhawk of the VMA-214 squadron that was parked on the apron at MCAS El Toro in California and climbed aboard. Swiftly firing up the aircraft, he then proceeded to taxi out onto the runway and accelerated away, climbing gracefully into the night sky.
This would seem normal enough at a busy base like El Toro.
The only problem was the pilot wasn’t a pilot…he was an aircraft mechanic. And he had just stolen an aircraft valued at the time at around $14 million.
This is the story of Lance Corporal Howard A. Foote Jr., USMC.
Foote, who was 21 at the time, was a flight mechanic and aircraft captain who had been planning on soon transitioning to flight school and becoming a Marine pilot. Flying high performance aircraft had been his goal in life since he was a child, and his joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 1984 had been with the express intention of going to flight school.
He was, in fact, already an extremely accomplished glider pilot at this point and, at the time of his foray into stealing jets, had recently tried to break at the world height record for gliders. This record attempt was essentially the reason for the theft of the Skyhawk.
While stationed at El Toro Foote had been mentored by the base commander, General William Bloomer. Bloomer trained aspiring glider pilots when off duty and Foote would later assert that the General had encouraged him to push himself and his glider further and further.
Bloomer would later state that he had always cautioned Foote against any attempt to take his aircraft above 30,000ft as he did not have a high-altitude pressure suit to safely make such an attempt.
Regardless, in February of 1986, while attempting to break the world altitude record for gliders, Foote suffered an embolism after reaching 42,500 feet. This extremely dangerous condition put Foote in hospital and in late-June he was told that he would likely not be able to go to the Marine Corps flight school because of it.
Foote apparently hoped that his friendship with General Bloomer would allow him to obtain a dispensation for his injury, but Bloomer retired from the Marines at the end June and Foote was, it seemed, doomed to never take to the air at the controls of a fast jet…except by taking things into his own hands.
Foote had already received almost one hundred hours in a simulator for the A-4 and thus had some familiarity with the control set up. So, he decided to grab his chance, which turned out to be early in the morning of July 4th.
Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of activity on the base at the time, but a sentry did try to challenge Foote as he climbed into the cockpit. But it was for naught, and Foote zoomed up the unlit runway and into the sky, headed out over the Pacific.
Fifty miles over the ocean, he proceeded to put the aircraft through its paces, looping and performing rolls, having a right fun time from all accounts. I mean, he had stolen a military jet belonging to the Unites States Marine Corps, so he might as well make the most of it.
After flying around like a stunt pilot for about half an hour, Foote turned around and headed back to El Toro. Naturally, things were a little more alert compared to his departure, with a sizeable number of the base personnel waiting for him to land.
This seems to have proven tricky for Foote, who made five attempts before getting the aircraft down. He said this was because of his inexperience with the aircraft, the prosecutor alleged it was simply him beating up the runway.
Whatever the truth, he did eventually land and was promptly arrested and placed in the brig for court martial. It subsequently came to light that the reason for that particular Skyhawk to be sitting out on the ramp like that was because it wasn’t airworthy; indeed, it was suffering from a number of dangerous faults in its ailerons and landing gear.
His escapades and the subsequent charges he faced did receive some attention in the press, and there was speculation that he may face the death penalty as he was charged with, among other things, “hazarding a vessel” – an old maritime law. As it was, it was thought that Foote would serve several years and then be dishonourably discharged.
But interestingly, after four-and-a-half-months in the brig, all charges were dropped, and he was discharged from the Marines with an “other-than-honorable” discharge. Foote then went on to work as a pilot for a charter airline, as well as looking at applying to the Israeli and Honduran Air Forces.
But he would ultimately get a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and work on his own project of building a microwave-powered aircraft to explore high altitude flight, as well as work as a test pilot and contractor for NASA’s JPL facility.
So, I suppose everything worked out OK, and Foote remains a minor US Marine legend. Though I do wonder how many other irritated grunts have eyed the flight line and thought:
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